BY JOHN OTIENO
ON Monday, we reported the controversial circumstances surrounding the cancellation of a visit by the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, the spiritual leader of Tibetan people and a highly regarded voice of millions of repressed people in his country, China.
The Dalai Lama was supposed to visit Kenya for three days beginning January 22, but his tour now hangs in the balance following official silence on the plans despite earlier authorisation by Vice President Moody Awori.
This news is important in several respects. To begin with, it exposes the hypocrisy of our leaders. The cancellation rekindles the controversy that characterised Lama’s intent to visit Kenya in 1999, when the government procrastinated over the ban until former President Daniel arap Moi declared at a rally in Narok that Lama would not be allowed in Kenya “under whatever circumstances.”
At that time, the cancellation elicited a huge public outcry, with President Mwai Kibaki, then leader of the Official Opposition, accusing Moi of succumbing to China’s ‘cheque-book diplomacy,” a policy whereby China gives money to poor countries in return for diplomatic support. Kibaki sought to portray the Moi government as cheap, gullible and an enemy of oppressed people, saying Kenya had lost its sovereignty to international donors. This time Kibaki personally stopped the visit after protests from the Chinese embassy.
Under Kibaki, Kenya has deepened cooperation with China. Lama is a persona non grata in China, and Beijing pressures other nations to shun him. Since 1959 when he fled his country in the wake of Chinese takeover, Lama has led a Tibetan Government in Exile, complete with a parliament to which Tibetans elect representatives regularly. He uses visits to other parts of the world to raise awareness on the human rights and other social conditions of life of about seven million Tibetans inside and outside the motherland.
As China becomes a powerful economy, entering pacts with many countries, Lama’s freedom to travel is increasingly curtailed as many countries get under China’s control. But many countries with diplomatic relations with Beijing allow him visits as a private citizen. Countries that have histories of colonial occupation or domination by other powers have especially welcomed Lama with open arms. Among the countries with comparable influence as Kenya are Gabon, Jordan, Poland and South Africa.
Second is the timing. This blockade has come at a time when China itself is pressing for a deal with the Dalai Lama in renewed negotiations over the future of Tibet. According to reports, Lama’s top envoy for the talks, Lodi Gyari, will hold another round of talks in Beijing soon in sessions that China says will capitalise on ‘new opportunities.’ Critics, however, suspect the talks to be ‘window-dressing’ ahead of next year’s Olympics that China will host in Beijing. That notwithstanding, Kenya would allow Lama to visit as a private citizen and China ‘s protests would be mute. Lama is apparently taking advantage of the opportunity, evident in the many foreign tours he has made this year and planned for next year; he has just returned to India after a 12-day tour of the United States, next month he will tour Melbourne , Australia , and be back in the same city in December 2009 for a conference of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Since the beginning of May, the Dalai Lama was in America where he delivered teachings to Buddhist organisations and gave lectures on peace. He toured the states of Hawaii, California, Texas, Wisconsin, and Illinois. In Chicago he was accorded a VIP luncheon that honoured benefactors and politicians, including Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic Senator for Illinois in America’s Congress. In October he will back in America to deliver a talk at Cornell University in New York.
Another important issue concerns the government’s action against an NGO, Friends of Taiwan and Tibet International, which it de-registered because the Chinese embassy demanded it does so.
The NGO was registered on December 18, 2003 with aims to foster cultural cooperation between Kenyans and Tibetans. But a year later, and barely a month after the Chinese embassy in Nairobi protested to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the NGO’s activities, the NGO Co-ordination Board de-registered the organisation without giving reasons. Documents filed at the government’s Secret Registry reveal a chain of correspondence between the Chinese embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the issue.
The question that emerges is: what can Kenya not to hurt China? Should the right of millions of Tibetans be traded for a few roads and some million shillings?
But all these conceded, Kenya may not be in a position to determine China’s policy in Tibet, but it can allow Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to air his views to ordinary Kenyans.